National Trust Historic Sites Confront Disaster Planning and Sustainable Practices

Posted on: September 12th, 2008 by Barbara Campagna 2 Comments

Thirty colleagues representing many of our sites met with me in Monterey,CA earlier this week to discuss

Buildings & Grounds Staff visited Cooper-Molera Adobe in downtown Monterey.

Buildings & Grounds Staff visited Cooper-Molera Adobe in downtown Monterey.

Disaster Planning and Sustainable Practices. Every few years we get together during our Buildings & Grounds Conference to share experiences, policies and the ups and downs of managing buildings and grounds at our National Historic Landmark sites. This year our partner, California State Parks , helped arrange our retreat at Asilomar, their Julia Morgan-designed National Historic Landmark conference center by the ocean. With no televisions or phones and WiFi only in the Phoebe Hearst Social Hall, it’s the perfect place to evaluate our place on the planet and the impact we’re having on the climate crisis.

More and More Natural Disasters

The National Trust currently has 29 historic sites across the country which represent the diverse story of

Ice storms descended on Brucemore in Cedar Rapids last December.

Ice storms descended on Brucemore in Cedar Rapids last December.

America. And unfortunately nearly all of them seem to be located in natural disaster-prone regions. Although when I start to look at our sites, it becomes clear that there probably isn’t any area of our country that is totally safe at all times. In just the past year, we have had a hundred year flood at the Farnsworth House that just missed flooding the house; two microbursts at Cliveden and Lyndhurst which caused major tree damage and electrical damage; a tropical storm at Villa Finale in San Antonio (a site which hasn’t even officially opened); monsoon-like storms that destroyed barns and trees at Belle Grove , Oatlands and Montpelier all in Virginia; two ice storms ransacked Brucemore in Cedar Rapids last December and then this summer, Brucemore, which sits on a hill, served as ground zero for first responders to all the other cultural institutions in Cedar Rapids that were significantly damaged from their catastrophic floods , and just last week there was enough Gustav-induced damage at Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia, LA to keep the Director from attending our conference. And so, in the 60 years since Mies van der Rohe designed the Farnsworth House in Plano, IL, there have been 60 floods – 6 of which were 100 year floods and 5 of our sites have braced for hurricanes in the past two weeks.

The Basin Complex Fire in Big Sur, CA devastated almost 200,000 acres in July.

The Basin Complex Fire in Big Sur, CA devastated almost 200,000 acres in July.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of land, much of it with historic and archaeological resources, burned for most of July in the Big Sur area of California, just south of our site in Monterey, Cooper-Molera Adobe . Most of these fires were caused by lightning strikes – lightning that was the result of massive storms brought on by some of the hottest weather ever in Northern California – weather that has been attributed to climate change. The Basin Complex Fire  burned from June 21-July 27th, destroyed 162,000 acres, 26 residences and 32 other buildings. And while it has been over a month since the fire was controlled, the disaster’s impact continues. Because so much of the ground and tree cover was wiped out, the fear of mud slides presents an even potentially worse impact on cultural resources. It is likely that many of the historic bridges and park buildings that responders worked so hard to save, will be lost over the next few years from mudflows.

Sustainable Practices

The Garden House at Filoli, in Woodside, CA.

The Garden House at Filoli, in Woodside, CA.

Many of our sites are seriously developing green housekeeping plans and instituting sustainable practices. Kykuit , our Rockefeller estate on the Hudson River, has been one of the most progressive sites anywhere, not just in our portfolio, sustainably-speaking, for years. Kykuit, which has a Conference Center, uses practices as basic as replacing incandescent bulbs when they burn out with CFLs and T-8 ballasts, changing the exit signs to LED lights, purchasing renewable wind energy to offset electricity usage, only using low or no-VOC paints and adhesives and even purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset emission for all conference participant travel. This spring they commissioned a Sustainability Master Plan which I would encourage for any site.

On the other end of the spectrum is Lyndhurst , our Gothic castle masterpiece just down the road from Kykuit, also on the Hudson. Lyndhurst, in the interests of operating costs and the environment formed a "green team" comprised of the staff involved in the maintenance and preservation of the site to determine ways that they could go green on a limited budget. They wrote a sustainability statement and met with the larger staff to make them aware of their responsibilities in this process' i.e. to work with vendors that have sustainable polices and practices and work to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. I will share just one of their actions (out of 10) with you, but would be happy to send you the full list if you’d like it. 1. Public Restrooms: changed all products (paper goods and soap) to Green Seal certified products. Did cost analysis of what they currently use and buy vs. Green Seal certified products. The Green Seal certified products were a bit cheaper and came with new, free dispensers. This spring before opening day all dispensers throughout the site including the offices were changed. In addition, they changed over all cleaning products at this time and now use a Green Seal certified cleaning agent that comes with a dispenser. It can be mixed in different strengths to suit the task at hand. This has also reduced operating costs because they no longer buy 4-5 different cleaners. They still use special agents from time to time for marble floors and wood but only once or twice per year now.

The organic orchard at Filoli in Woodside, CA.

The organic orchard at Filoli in Woodside, CA.

And at Filoli , our site in Woodside, CA, their 650 acres of gardens and orchards provide organic produce for the staff and some local restaurants.  As their unique apple and pear trees grow and get stronger, Filoli hopes to expand their distribution throughout the region. 

Best Practices

While some of my colleagues wondered why I had combined Disaster Planning with Sustainable Practices in the same conference, it became clear by the end that everything was connected. Being a good steward means that you develop plans to protect and maintain your site daily, use environmentally sound practices and products, and work with your community to control disaster and mitigate it afterwards. The National Trust has a Best Practices Manual for the Care of our Structures and Landscapes. We’ve updated it this summer including a new section on Green Housekeeping and Sustainable Practices. The final version of this will be available on our Historic Sites blog next month.  Want to contact me?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at


2 Responses

  1. wayne freeland

    September 16, 2008

    Were in the the construction business mostly in the regreen side,we do all kinds renovations.We have been in the sustainable biulding materials business for almost twenty years .
    Our curent projects are restoring structures that were built the 1900 hundreds and creating a small community throughout texas region.

    We would be very much like to help in a small way to rebiuld galveston!

  2. Reid Thomas

    June 12, 2009

    An excellent and environmentally friendly traditional linseed oil paint is available through (585)-924-8070. Their organic linseed oil based paints and products are long lasting, safe to use and contains no solvents or chemicals. This paint does not cause moisture-related problems that is too often the case with modern synthetic oil or acrylic paints. The linseed oil paint more closely replicates the apperance of traditional coatings.